by Doug Carpenter


A Boomer Is a Boomer Is a Boomer

The day that the notion of writing Everyboomer: The Antibiography of a Generation first occurred to me [...which was considerably longer ago than I like to admit...] was also the day I began talking about it both frequently and to anyone who would listen. [And be warned. If you ask a writer, even casually, what they’re working on, they will tell you about it. In detail.]

Essentially, the best way to describe the process is “writing out loud.” It’s an occupational proclivity [...O.K., an annoying habit...] that a lot of writers unfortunately indulge when they get a new idea in their heads. Personally, I find that if I let too many of them accumulate up there they tend to rattle around and scare the squirrels, so I try to let them out as quickly as I can. [The ideas... not the squirrels. They came with the head.]

But even as it helped shape my vision of what Everyboomer might become, this on-going “tell-a-thon” also generated a surprising number of conversations that included people politely if bluntly asking me why in the world I wanted to write “another” book about Baby Boomers. After all, by that point, we’d arguably already had our 15 minutes of pop cultural fame and then some. What more could there possibly be to tell about a generation that loved nothing more than to “Tell it like it is...” and did?

And the oddest thing was that the ones who most frequently raised this question were, in fact, themselves Baby Boomers — the last people I’d have thought would need convincing. Ever the generational loyalist, though, my first inclination was to take this as a good sign — an indication that perhaps we Boomers weren’t really as full of ourselves as everybody always says we are. [Sadly, it turned out that we were.]

But what really struck me was how often it was that necessary to explain — particularly to people who had personally lived through them — the truly historic significance of the amazing events that transpired on our generation’s watch and the impact that we had had on them and they on us. This only further strengthened my conviction that there was still a story left to tell.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that there were literally millions of them — an intimidating fact that could easily have scared me off had I not realized why they still hadn’t been told. There were, I discovered, almost as many reasons as there are Boomers, the biggest being the most obvious.

Their stories — both individually and collectively as the country’s dominant demographic — were still in progress. So for many of them, it was simply a matter of understandably not being comfortable sharing their feelings about their lives when they were still unsure of how those lives were going to turn out. I suspected, though, that with a little encouragement, a generation not exactly known for its reluctance to talk about itself could probably be persuaded to open up. Of course, when it comes to persuasion, it helps to understand who you’re trying to persuade.

And there’s a lot more to being a Baby Boomer than simply being born between 1946 and 1964. Contrary to being the homogenous, “We’re all in this together” band of culture warriors they’re often portrayed as, the 76 million-plus Boomers living in America today find themselves at dramatically different points in their life stories facing equally distinct challenges. To repurpose a classic poetic construction from early 20th century writer Gertrude Stein, “A Boomer is a Boomer is a Boomer,” because where others traditionally see one kind, I see three.

The Baby Boom generation’s First Wave — which includes the “straight out of the gate” members of its ’46 charter class up through those born in the first two years of the fabulous ’50s — have already crossed that line in the sands of time that marks the beginning of a chapter they’ve either dreamed of or dreaded for years: retirement. They, in turn, were followed by two more batches of bouncing baby Boomers, born respectively between 1952 and ’59 and 1960 and ’64.

If those date ranges appear at all arbitrary to you, to some extent I guess that’s true since I chose them. They are, however, based on a set of widely- and often-repeated social dynamics that many of you probably witnessed and participated in without even realizing it. Not that anyone could blame you. You were probably just too busy being awkward, popular, excited, nervous and/or confused adolescents to notice.

I, on the other hand — having obviously been born destined to be the future chronicler of my generation’s path to glory [...Too much? I’m trying out possible book jacket blurbs...] — took copious notes of the telling differences, as illustrated by my personal documentation of what I call the “Case of the Vanishing Crew Cut.”

Actually, even a bargain basement Sherlock like me couldn’t fail to recognize that there were and continue to be behavioral and values-driven tipping points — not just between generations but within them as well — at which something shifts. And even if the people who shift with them don’t notice it at the time it happens, they inevitably feel its aftereffects.

My older brother, for example, was a First Waver. Arriving in the still freshly post-war world of 1948 put him on track to being a proud member of a high school class that would graduate in 1966. My subsequent birth in 1952 [...what I’m sure in retrospect had to have been four blissfully-quiet years for him...] secured me a spot in the class of 1970.

Even though we were exposed to many of the same influences — both parental and societal — while growing up together, we were unquestionably different. And not just us as brothers or individuals. You could see the same diverging attitudes among our respective peers as well. Something had definitely shifted, and wherever it had gone it had taken crew cuts with it.

Although they may be words capable of striking fear in the heart of even the most professionally-successful and emotionally-secure high school reunion attendee, yearbook photos don’t lie. At least not in my hometown, where somewhere between the diploma ceremony in June of 1966 and the start of the new school year the following September, polite chino-wearers with flattops became an endangered species, replaced by a surging herd of rebellious teens in bell bottom jeans sporting hair “down to there.”

I’m sure that a similar fashion phenomenon was transforming teenage girls’ Peter Pan-collared blouses into tie-dyed tee-shirts. But I checked my notes and apparently I didn’t record any observations about that. [Of course, I was a 14-year-old boy at the time, and that wasn’t exactly the part of my coed classmates’ appearance I was programmed to notice, clearly illustrating that some things don’t change.]

At the other end of the our generational timeline, you have the proud and just-as-unique members of the graduating classes of 1980, 1981 and 1982, who if you backdate them you’ll find were the product of the late-season crop of Boomers born in 1962, ’63 and ’64 as the once-deafening sound of the world-changing birthquake had begun to dissipate. These are the original “anchor babies” of the Boom generation, who along with those born in the first two years of the 1960s constitute the group I fondly but respectfully refer to as the “Hostile Witnesses.”

Just as my contemporaries and I had to deal with our share of “Hey hippie!”-themed hassling from our more conservative Boomer elders, the HWs tend to generate a measurable degree of back off-flavored heat. And considering the message they’re sending, it’s ironic how totally it embraces the “Tell it like it is” spirit of the generation they’re trying so desperately to distance themselves from.

Clearly and understandably feeling like they have more in common with the arguably younger and presumably hipper newcomers flanking them on the opposite side chronologically, they’re in essence saying “Look. We managed to hold off — almost, anyway — from being born until your ‘too cool for school’ generation was done recruiting true believers for its crusade to change the world. But that’s not, you know, our thing. So, if it’s all the same to you, could you maybe spot us those couple of years and just leave us out of it?”

Well, as our generation’s humble biographer, I feel I should at least try to offer some response on behalf of my fellow Boomers. And all I can say to our HW brothers and sisters is “Sorry, guys. Wish we could accommodate you. But to paraphrase pretty much every generation’s go-to angst line, we didn’t ask for you to be born. Like it or not, you’re part of us.”

“But why not look on the bright side. You’re actually a highly-valuable asset to us. Coming to the game on the cusp of Generation X’s arrival as you did, you may have the best shot of any of us at understanding what in God’s name they and the generations that have followed since are talking about. Because we certainly don’t. If we look like we do, it’s only because we’ve gotten really good at faking it. Sure. We’d rather have kept it real, but we did what we had to do to survive long enough to figure out what to do to succeed.”

“Early on when we started spouting off about how people should listen to us because we had all the answers, God help us, people did. The last thing we wanted was for them to figure out that most of the time we were making what were, at best, educated guesses... just like everybody does and always has.”

Wait. Was I supposed to admit that out loud? Listen, forget I said anything, O.K., or I’m in a lot of trouble.

© 2017 Doug Carpenter

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